Monday, December 28, 2009

unforgettables from the noughties

I like this word "noughty". It keeps popping up as a description of the years from 2000-2009. I had to use it in a post! So here are my top ten unforgettable moments from the Noughties (roughly in chronological order):

#1 standing at a graveside
This had always been our dream. Travelling up and around and over row upon row of Himalaya for hour upon hour in order to find our way back to a place called Dharchula. In a little pocket of India close to both Tibet and Nepal. Between them Barby's parents and grandparents had spent decades up there - but as the youngest child, Barby had never been there. And so on a hill outside the town we stood as a family in front of the grave of Barby's grandmother with that headstone reading "In giving light to others, she herself burned out".

#2 loving a concert
I enjoy my music - all sorts of music. But the church often places hopes in music that music alone cannot sustain. It does not help when 'watching' replaces 'listening' as the prevailing verb. But that was not the case one night at Parachute when the Newsboys were on stage. I watched and I listened. The lyrics, the commentary, the testimony, the sound, the event ... I just did not want it to end. Afterall has there been a more profound line coming out of contemporary Cristian music than "Shine, make 'em wonder whatcha got"?

#3 feeling the pleasure
Discovering our own variation on the (Eric) Liddellian theme is something to cherish: 'when I run, I feel God's pleasure'. In the noughties I discovered mine. Be it in the classroom at Carey or, more significantly, in the foyers of little churches in places like Wanaka and Geraldine, Morrinsville and Welcome Bay I stumbled on my chief delight in serving Jesus. "When I train preachers I feel God's pleasure".

#4 taking a phone call
I do most of my crying before breakfast. The middle of the noughties had two experiences that provoked emotion for weeks. The first was that phone call from Phyllis McIntosh in Invercargill. Georgetown Baptist Church was no more. The church we had pastored for five years was closing its doors. Yes, it was grief that I felt.

#5 reading a headline
A few months later it happened all over again as I walked back from the Mobil Station with the newspaper in hand. A massive one word headline stared at me. Tsunami. Add in the writings of people like Philip Jenkins and Lamin Sanneh, stir in the decisions being made by our children, in particular - and my life was being freshly and irrevocably turned towards the peoples of the world. It was the beginning of the rest of my life.

#6 enjoying a stream
I spend a lot of my dream-time planning memory-making holidays with Barby and the children. The subsequent photos are part of the glue which bind marriages and families together. I was pretty chuffed when I figured out that our anniversary and Barby's birthday were three weeks apart and so one holiday was bookended with celebrations of both. But nothing could beat our week together in Morocco and that gently flowing stream running through Todhra Gorge on a hot and dry and thirsty day.

#7 watching the children
God's hand has been on them and we are so thankful. So many memories. Rushing around Auckland's bookshops with Stephen trying to locate a major new book on the Treaty of Waitangi which contained a glowing footnote to an essay he wrote as a student? Watching Alyssa, torn from months immersed in Kolkata's poverty, come home and go upstairs to her room and immediately create a piece for her wall - 'compassion: to suffer with'? Wondering how Martin was going to cope while I fulfilled my speaking commitments on that first morning in Kabwe (Zambia) - only to find him best mates with half a dozen Zambians before morning tea? Listening to Bethany's end-of-year speech as Head Girl and asking 'did all that really did come out of my little girl's mouth and is she really from the same gene pool as me'? And Joseph? How could I ever forget prizegiving on his final day at primary school? One prize had a long introduction. 'Who is she speaking about?' The childrens' heads twist and turn. 'Who is it'? A comment is made and in unison every head turns and looks at my little Joseph, sheer delight filling their faces. That delight from his peers trumped any affirmation from the staff...

#8 drinking a cup of coffee
They tell me God's guidance tends to be a little bit of push and a little bit of pull. Thinking I still had a few years to run as Principal at Carey I was taken a bit by surprise by the pulling and pushing which God began to orchestrate. The 'pull' is easy to source. Over a cup of coffee with Chris Wright at King's Plant Barn in St Lukes a role with Langham sounded plausible and possible. The 'push' is a bit harder. What about sitting around a table of Baptist leaders for a high level meeting when a particularly respected one asserts, "But what has Carey got to do with training leaders?" Ah yes - after a decade of sweat and tears it was like a knife in the heart (and I did not react too well either!). My time was up and other little pushes made it clear that it was time for a new voice at the helm.

#9 sitting in front of the TV
How could anyone forget the moment when Susan Boyle walked onto that stage, opened her mouth, and subverted so many of the things that the world holds dear?

#10 going on a pilgrimage
Why not celebrate my 50th birthday by taking a pilgrimage up to Marsden Cross in the Bay of Islands - and invite some friends to come along as well?! Even though I still carry a heavy heart for missing a few people out, it was a stunning day of friendship and fun, spirituality and community.

nice chatting - catch you in the next decade (the tennies? the teenies? ...)


Monday, December 21, 2009

celebrity and integrity

I have been thinking a bit about Tiger Woods recently...

The dynamics at work in public and private life are worth considering. Celebrities like Tiger have no qualms about using the media to magnify their lives on the global stage, increasing their fame and fortune as they do so. But the necessary consequence of this is that one day that same media might deflate their lives on the global stage as well. Deal with it! If you want them to puff up your balloon in the public world, be prepared to have them pop it as well. That is the life you have chosen. You can't use the media for a decade or two and then suddenly turn around and say, "OK - I want my privacy from now on - turn around and go home." Compassion is in short supply in our world and it needs to be spent where it is needed most - and so when a celebrity falls into a deep dark hole out of their own foolishness, I train my mind to control the flow of compassion.

There is, of course, another pathway celebrities can choose. Adding an ordered private life of integrity to their dizzying public life. That 'what you see is what you get' quality. That 'go on, media, shine your light anywhere you like in my life and you won't find much about which to write which will interest people.' However such is the corrosive nature of their level of access to money, sex and power that we seldom see this alignment of public and private worlds. It is a bit tragic because celebrities with a global reach coupled to a private order could do a lot of good in the sort of world we live in. (I guess there are a few of them around)

I have been thinking a bit about Brian Tamaki recently...

Before you start quoting me out of context (!), let me say I am not in the crowd who throw the "cult" word at Tamaki. I was embarassed when that conversation was had on national TV. The language was too strong and too aggressive and Tamaki handled himself with gracious restraint. I respect Tamaki for what he is achieving for the sake of Christ in a part of NZ society where the church has failed. I think I understand what is behind the '700 men making their promises' and I am going to give Tamaki the benefit of the doubt and refrain from being critical.

But I still have deep concerns which evoke deep prayers for him and his ministry. What I struggle to understand are the massive billboards with "a super city needs a super church" on them, together with Tamaki's photo. What is the thinking behind this strategy? Why are these billboards needed? Gee - I hope Destiny's brains trust knows what they are doing with these. They make me squirm with discomfort. Biblically, they seem wrong-headed. Strategically, they seem ill-advised. I would have thought that the people of God living distinctive lives as they immerse themselves in that part of the world where God has called them is sufficient marketing. It is so viral.

To me this billboard approach starts to feel like the celebrity approach. To me there is here an overheated desire to be noticed and known. This invites unwelcome and unnecessary pressures that become difficult to withstand. The media glare will switch on. The search for inconsistency between public and private worlds will intensify. I hope and pray that they maintain the personal integrity and nurture the spiritual resources to withstand the heat so that the name of Christ will not be embarassed at some later date.

nice chatting


Saturday, December 12, 2009

antidote for atheism

If these billboards from Britain are coming to a bus near you, head for Ecclesiastes and preach your little heart out.

I'd start with expounding the text on the side of the bus ... then I'd go to the sympathetic approval of such a text in the early chapters of Ecclesiastes ... before going to those supreme chapters at the end - 11 & 12 - where the bus-text is slam-dunked and snookered, cornered and trumped.

And then live your life like Ecclesiastes 11 and 12 is true. Behind the "you do not knows" of chapter 11 (which encourage us to live adventuresome, risky lives) lies the God to be feared and obeyed of chapter 12. And that is the way to enjoy life...

nice chatting


Thursday, December 10, 2009

kiwimade preaching

This new website with its various bloggish features is now up and running

Become part of the community - and enjoy!

nice chatting


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

some reasons why i am a christian

Later today I head off for my first ever visit to Papua New Guinea where we will be launching the work of Langham Preaching. More than 100 pastors and leaders will be gathering from around the country... This follows visits to Thailand (2x), Solomon Islands, Pakistan, China, Uganda, India, Singapore, and Cambodia. What a year it has been - and there have been a few highlights along the way...

#1 Seeing the Word of God in different translations
One of the reasons why I am a Christian is God's commitment to incarnation. It started with Jesus but it continues in his delight with translation. Thai, Pidgin, Urdu, Mandarin, Khmer. There is nothing the living God wants to say to any people that cannot be said in the words of their own everyday language. It leaves this white middle-aged caucasian male humbled and hopeful...

#2 Savouring the salvation of God among the peoples of the world
One of the reasons why I am a Christian is that our founder is not just a teacher who expected people to follow him, he is the saviour who died for them. As Tim Keller expresses it, the founders of other religions tend to say 'Do this and you will find the divine', while Jesus says 'I am the divine come to you, to do what you could not do for yourselves'. The immediate bond which forms among very different people simply because they have an experience of salvation in common is a perennial heart-softening, tear-inducing experience for me. Like it was with Mercy and Frank and Barbara in Kampala after just eight hours together...

#3 Glimpsing the potential of L*angham P*rntership International in the mission of God
One of the reasons why I am a Christian is that our Leader delights in using each one of us in his mission. He does not need to have the rich and the powerful on his side. He is not dependent on celebrity endorsement. He has no difficulty working with weakness - in fact, "those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable". It is so cool. We all have a role to play. Every person. Every local church. Every mission organisation. As for me - I will be forever grateful for this privilege of working with LPI. For years I have marveled at the potential there must be in its Scholars and Literature and Preaching programmes working in concert with each other and then in partnership with churches and colleges and mission groups in a given country. Now I have seen it. I have been in countries where such concerted and partnered activity, under God's gracious hand, could transform whole countries over a decade or two. It is that strategic.

And on a more personal note...
Thirty years ago this week (I left Auckland Airport the morning after the Erebus disaster, as the tragic news was filtering-through) I flew to the USA in pursuit of my own call into global mission. None of this riding on the coat-tails of my parents' call for me! I was headed for the Urbana Student Missions Convention along with 17,000 others. But God had other ideas for me. Each morning I found myself glued to the expository ministry of one John Stott. And I knew that I knew that God was calling me to a ministry of biblical preaching. Over the years, through the various vocational shifts here in New Zealand, I have tried to be faithful to this call.
And now, thirty years later, where do I find myself? In a global mission organisation founded by John Stott nurturing the work of biblical preaching! One of the reasons why I am a Christian is the aspiration which is fanned into flame when I consider some of God's choicest saints who have gone before - like John Stott. Their lives whisper to me "follow my example, as I follow Christ's."

[As a postscript it was at Urbana where I held Barby's hand for the first time - while listening to Billy Graham. Go on - beat that story, if you dare!. Barby reminded me last night that she was at the time the same age as our younger daughter, Bethany. GULP?! Ahhh, the same child who bought a John Stott book - Basic Christianity - at a TSCF student conference last week. "Ata girl! You know you want it!" Don't dare tell her but the best John Stott book of them all - The Cross of Christ - will arrive in the mail for her birthday while I am in PNG.]

nice chatting


Monday, November 23, 2009

the corinthians

Ever noticed how in our younger student years we gravitate towards the issues and debates which surround 1 Corinthians? They really heat us up as we identify in various ways with the grocery-like list of church-problems which these pages contain...

Then after life is lived for awhile, the ups and downs of ministry experienced, 2 Corinthians comes into focus as a close companion with understanding and empathy for the situations we face as we live for Jesus in this world.

nice chatting


Wednesday, November 11, 2009


What comes to mind when you hear the word 'hosting'?

I think of hospitality, welcome, warmth, service, humility, quietness, graciousness, inclusion, generosity, making-space-for-others-to-shine ...

Within weeks of finishing the middle book of the Simon Walker trilogy on leadership where he suggests this idea of the leader being a 'host', I find myself reading a book on preaching (Chris Erdman, Countdown to Sunday) where the author keeps returning to this very same word to speak of the preaching task: we are about hosting the word of God for the people of God.

For example (in a chapter on the value of the lectionary):

"We're finding that there is something deeply consistent with discipleship when we can't choose the words we will hear each Sunday, the texts our preachers read and ponder among us. And I think this moves the right direction on the interpretive bridge. Our people now want our preachers to host the text in all its strangeness, standing with them beneath it, even (maybe especially) when it is beguiling and confusing, dark and troubling. And their desires now square with my own - I'm not much interested in moving from the world we live in toward the text and trying to square its old ways with this new world as if the text must be made relevant to us. Rather I think the text wants to make us relevant to God. And the text - not our own agendas, opinions, or desires - is the birthplace of God's new life for us and for the world" (43-44).

Hosting?! Is it a metaphor to capture the essence of both leadership and preaching? An intriguing question...

nice chatting


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

the undefended leader (c)

There is something of the concentric circles in this trilogy...

We shift from the personal character of the leader (vol 1) to the pragmatics of leadership, specially in its use of power (vol 2) and now the politics of leadership as we discover its influence in the broad sweep of large populations of people over space and through time: Simon Walker, Leading with Everything to Give: lessons from the success and failure of western capitalism (Piquant, 2009).

The book is part-sociology and part-spirituality as Walker calls for a 'cultural rebirth'. While the relevance of the early books is unquestioned - here an urgency mixes with that relevance. I found myself being distracted by thoughts of Ecclesiastes, Amos, the parables and the like all the way through. And the same strengths I enjoyed in the earlier volumes are still there: brief, simple, applied, illustrated, and inclusive.

The first half of the book is about "Deconstruction" as Walker gathers lessons from the failures of Western capitalism into the same template as he uses in vol 2. First up, it is The Crumbling of Our Foundations (ch2). "Let's be clear: the economic crisis that exploded in the early autumn of 2008 was not caused primarily by bad banking practices..." (8). One of our main difficulties is that we have no way of saying "No" to the advance of technology. It must be constrained "by a moral discourse that lies outside the realm and control of the scientist and the technocrat"(17). "We won't stop until we can't go on - and then it will be too late" (18).

Then it is The Insatiable Hunger of the Well-fed (ch 3) and an examination of the social cost of consumerism. We are less resilient, more fragile. Politically "people regard themselves as consumers rather than citizens and politicians offer the electorate a choice of products rather than privileges on the basis of shared responsibilities" (29).

Then it is Bowing the Knee: the Ascent of Money (ch 4) and the growing inability to define ourselves in any other way than personal financial wealth. "GDP" is how we measure a nation's health - leaving the majority world legitmately wanting to catch-up - but even if this could be attained, it cannot be sustained. "Unless the West changes course it will be responsible for leading the rest of the world into very perilous waters" (38). We must discover a triple bottom line as a measurement of health: social, environemntal and financial.

Then it is on to Buying the World Cheap (ch 5) as Walker discusses issues of migration, urbanisation and 'exploiting the desperate'. The policies of America and Britian in the face of the 'global threat of Islamist terror' have been "catastrophically flawed" (49). They are designed to "contain the contents of the cauldron while the West continues with the strategies of political and economic domination that lit the fire in the first place ... unless we turn the heat down, sooner or later it will boil over. Its basic physics and basic social ecology" (49). Maybe this is why I was so enamoured with President Obama's speech in Cairo. I think he understands this...

Next up is Celluloid Slavery: the Economics of the Celebrity Class (ch 6) and this habit we have of admiring "people who have little, or even no, discernible talent or achievement"(52). This chapter is such a worry! Walker cites a study which discovers that "one in ten teenagers surveyed would be willing to give up their education to appear on TV"(57).

ch 7 is about The Rending of Our Social Fabric. Here Walker discusses the asset which we have forgotten to gather and build: 'social capital' - "the trust that exists between people ... the richness of the spaces between people ... the closeness, integrity, and reliability of relationships in any community" (61). This social capital has been spent and squandered leaving us with a crisis far greater than the one caused by any financial crisis.

Then it is to ch 8 and The Swelling of the Underclass. Every society in history has had an underclass. "For a society to be healthy, its most powerful members need to show compassion to its most powerless, something that seems to happen less often today than in the past" (70). "The West has bought the world cheap. Ultimately, the problem of the global underclass is not a matter of too little aid or trade, or too much debt: it is a matter of too much consumption ... We have bought the world cheap and the price we have paid is not enough to sustain the dignity and hope of people who have sold almost everything they had" (74).

In ch 9 the full weight of this 'deconstruction' is explained. Walker claims that we are experiencing the end of an era that commenced in the Renaissance five centuries ago. That is a big claim! We are in a grieving process: Death, Grief and Changing Cycles. "I am not convinced that we or our leaders have the courage to embrace our loss as deeply as we must"(82). The West needs to recover some roots - moral roots, spiritual roots. "Productivity without rest, aspiration without restraint, rights without responsbilities, freedom without limits, ownership without stewardship" (83) is not the answer!. On pp84-85 there is a plea for the spiritual. Surgical stuff - and very moving.

Then the book turns to "Reconstruction " as Walker gathers lessons for the future of society. Solutions are never as easy to articulate as the analysis of what is wrong. This is true here - and yet I sense that Walker is writing intentionally with more restraint and open-endedness so as to draw the reader into the issues. Furthermore there is no shortage of practical ideas in what follows... [NB - you may wish to visit to continue this discussion].

"This book is a health waring to all those who imagine that all is well in the West and want to emulate it"(90). And off he goes to embrace a whole bunch of C-words: Culture; Consumption and Citizenship ("there is no doubt that ultimately the challenge which faces humankind is to reduce our total consumption"(99)); Capital; Control and Capacity; Celebrity ("we must encourage the emergence of a new kind of hero" (117)); Compassion; Cohesion; Conviction ("it is the spiritual that historically has proved to have the greatest capacity to inspire our noblest acts" (128))...

"Genuine spirituality is a spirituality of undefendedness, of generosity, which enjoys the resources we have but also freely gives them away" (132).

"For its own sake and that of society, the church needs to find a new language in which to express its vibrant spirituality ... My own experience is that many people in our society are crying out for an experience of transcendence. They have never known what it is to walk on holy ground, to enter a sacred space in which prayer has been offered for centuries and take off their shoes in the heavy silence of reverent awe. They have never been awakened to their own soul; they do not know what it is for that soul to touch the Other, to encounter what is beyond, what is older, deeper and more mysterious. They do not know the discipline of waiting, in stillness and denial of self, and paying attention to the Other. We are truly a generation of 'hollow men', superficial, thin, transparent, rootless, substanceless, weightless, in danger of being swept away by the slightest puff of wind. The church will be doing us all a fatal disservice if it offers us no more than another serving of spiritual retail therapy" (133).

If that is not an invitation to preach Ecclesiastes, I am not sure what is!

Chapter 19 finishes with Where Do We Go From Here?... "the day for wilful negligence is surely over" (136). Walker urges us to cultivate both idealism and pragmatism as we confront the present and the future with respect to what we consume, where we work, where we live, how we invest, and where we worship. Then it is about embracing the "undefended life" marked by a receiving, a welcoming, and a stewarding - with all being done with a generosity.

These three posts on this 'undefended leader' trilogy are the longest posts I have ever posted. Is there a parting shot to make for those who have got this far? With all that I am and with whatever wisdom and experience I have gained over the years, I plead with you to look at those whom you coach/mentor and seriously consider purchasing this trilogy and working your way through it together through 2010.

Go on - do it!

nice chatting


Thursday, October 29, 2009

the glory of preaching

How ironic is this...

With 200+ books on preaching on my shelves and with 20 years of teaching preaching in the classroom and with a multitude of moans about 'why can't just one of those books serve as a textbook in just one of those years in the classroom' - well, in the year that I finish as a classroom teacher, the textbook shows up.

Darrell W. Johnson, The Glory of Preaching: Participating in God's Transformation of the World (IVP, 2009). Yep - it is that good. It may not be the best book I've ever read on preaching, but as far as basic, comprehensive textbooks go, it enters the charts at Number One.


1. I am Stottian in my convictions. That means theology is more important than methodology. That means holding your techniques lightly, but being held by your convictions tightly. I love the way Johnson opens with 4 chapters on convictions ("theoretical foundations for participating") and then it is 5 chapters on techniques ("human mechanics on participating") - before concluding with 1 chapter on convictions again ("theoretical foundations again"). I like the symmetry. I like what the symmetry is saying. Students need this in their foundations.

2. There is something in his basic metaphor of 'participating': "expository preaching is not about getting a message out of the text; it is about inviting people into the text so that the text can do what only the text can do" - 58).

3. I confess - as I have done before in this blog - that I am somewhat dubious about the North American academic homiletic tradition. With their books they tend to talk among themselves and create this massive industry - and it just feels a bit ivory-tower-ish and club-ish to me. Not sure. What I am sure of is that Johnson is so refreshingly different. It drips out of his book. Not a lot of polish. It is almost chatty. His career has bounced between church and academy and between East and West. He has been a pastor (I think he has just left Regent College in a return to the pastorate) and he has been a missionary in the Philippines. It shows. I like it.

4. Let's face it! Johnson has written a whole heap of stuff I'd dream about putting in a 'book' on preaching. So there is a depressing side to reading this book!
For example:
(a) his definition of preaching emphasizes the need to be "causing a shift in worldview" - YES!;
(b) he makes space for the significance of the parable of the sower/seed/soils - YES!;
(c) he has such a high view of the Bible - informing, transforming and performing - YES! ("our task as preachers is to open the text in such a way that the text itself does what only the text can do" - 165);
(d) he includes an entire chapter on "the many-verbed wonder (which is) the preaching moment" (98) - YES! (even classifying them into four quadrants - "hold me back lest I swoon");
(e) he lingers with the importance of mere observation of what the text is in saying and with a genre-sensitivity - YES!;
(f) he includes his manuscript of a sermon and he does it just like I do - so unlike an essay - YES!

5. Then there are other topics on which Johnson is so fresh and so clear, even prophetic.
For example:
(a) 'truth through personality' becomes "personhood" as he takes us through Temperament, Woundedness, and Gifting ("burnout in ministry does not result from overworking; burnout results from not honouring who we are and instead trying to be who we think we ought to be" - 190);
(b) betraying his experience in Asia, he puts postmodernity (and the new atheism, I might add) in its place - pleading with the reader to open their eyes and realise that in the future inter-faith issues are going to be of far more consequence than lack-of-faith issues;
(c) keeping the sociologists and the marketers at arm's length a bit, he questions aspects of the pursuit or relevance and the place of seeker-sensitivity. In effect - 'if you are going to let those guys define the problem you may find yourself checking them out for the total solution as well ... and the drift from the gospel has begun'.
(d) affirming the need for the Spirit at work at both ends, saved appropriately for his concluding chapter;
(e) having a little word for those who tend to be intimidated by the visual as preachers - "the power of a film does not lie in its sights alone but also in its sounds" (145).

6. Some of the stuff he says is just downright intriguing. It makes you want to respond - "really?! - please explain yourself".
For example:
(a) the case he makes for continuing to handwrite his notes, rather than using a word-processor (135);
(b) the case he makes for application not being the preacher's responsibility - rather it is "implication" - "to expect preachers to apply the text for their listeners is to ask them to play God ... the pressure to apply is a modernist pressure, not a biblical pressure" - 159);
(c) the way he plans for the next year's special service immediately after this year's version - "why wait for a few weeks or months? Late Christmas Eve is the best time to prepare (for next year) because, one, all the sounds and smells and sights of the celebration are fresh in my senses and, two, I know what I did not preach for lack of time and wished I could have" - 210).

7. Finally, I have met Darrell. He took me out to lunch one day in Vancouver. I liked him a lot. No airs. Just a natural authentic person. I actually invited him to NZ and he had to cancel on me in the end. I might try again.

nice chatting


Monday, October 26, 2009

koru clubs

It happened again.

Sitting in yet another Majority World church context - this time the Graduation Ceremony of the Phnom Penh Bible School in Cambodia - and I find it staring me in the face from the front wall in huge font. The whole focus is on maturity: "help your people grow in Christ".

This is one of the twin mandates of the church in the New Testament. The other mandate is mission. But it seldom receives the same focus because people tend to be coming to Christ and evangelism and church-planting is happening anyway. It is almost routine. The great need is to see people mature.

The context back home in New Zealand is just so different. The mission challenge is immense. It hogs the headlines as we struggle along. However let's not forget to invest heavily in maturing the people of God. This is done primarily through the ministries of the Word of God. We might be surprised at how this impacts that mission challenge we face. That is why this view adjacent to the deck outside our new home is just so energising. This is exactly what I pray for the churches of New Zealand: that they would become koru clubs, gatherings of people unfurling into likeness to Christ as they remain in Christ. I reckon that this has massive missional potential - and without it mission is going to keep disintegrating into a perennially messy ineffectiveness.

Here is to being faithful to the twin mandates of the church: maturity and mission

nice chatting


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

my niece is an author

Yes, a serious author.
So serious that you really should check her out.

Jasmine May Dodson has written and illustrated the most gorgeous little children's book. It is called The Fancy Fable of the Fairy's Frock.

Check out this page:

"Left and right they looked
and cocked their heads
for the way they had come
was now gobbled up by the snow
as were all the other trails.
They now found themselves
in an unfortunate conundrum
when obligingly at that moment
a scratching of the friendly variety
was heard in the periphery.
A wee nose emerged from the snowflakes."

Isn't that just beautiful?! Conundrum? Periphery? How can she get away with those words with kids? She does and she will because the imagery in word and in picture is so exquisite that it will hold the kids - and adults will keep on reading for the additional intrigue in the vocabulary. I loved the way my eyes feasted, my imagination fired, and my mind engaged all the way through the storyline. It is a remarkable piece of literature.

The book is available from Amazon with the link mentioned above. ISBN 978-0-473-15642-8. However a website (for NZ orders, in particular) is being constructed which will be easier and quicker: Don't wait for Christmas. Be in.

I know I shouldn't say this - but it is my blog so I can say whatever I like thank-you very much :) It is Beatrix-Potter-esque, that is what it is.

Jasmine is one talented young woman.

nice chatting

Jasmine May Dodson's uncle
(I am famous)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

imperatives and questions

I don't usually rehash sermons on this blog but on this occasion I have found the four imperatives in 2 Timothy 2.1-7 to be so compelling - particularly as I work away at the interface between the Post-Christian West (P-CW) and Post-Western Christianity (P-WC)...

"be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (2.1)

Could it be that in the P-CW we are too strong in too many areas? We have books and DVDs. We have programmes and seminars. We have colleges and consultants. We have money. Let's face it - we don't really need Christ in order to function as the church. However in P-WC, time and time again, the only option available to people is to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Is that united-ness to Him really the truth on which we depend?

"the things you have heard me say ... entrust to reliable people ... qualified to teach" (2.2)

Could it be that in the P-CW we are placing gospel-sized hopes in leadership? It is important. Of course it is. But what kind of leader is required? Have we started to down-grade the skill of teaching? Might one of the issues today be that people are over-inspired and under-fed? Paul's plea to Timothy was about entrusting responsibility to leaders who are 'reliable people qualified to teach'. In P-WC when leaders are needed the eye still turns to the theological college - and when the college is at its best (which is not always the case, sadly), it is a great place to find reliable people qualified to teach.
And what about 'entrust'? Is this not a Pauline word for discipling, mentoring, coaching? As one leader said to me recently, "all mission is going to become mentoring", or entrusting. I suspect this will true regardless of whether we live in the P-CW or P-WC.

"endure hardship" (2.3)

Could it be that in the P-CW we are prioritising the wrong imperative as we live in this world? The call goes out - all the time - to be relevant. Of course we want to be relevant - but is it really that important? Does it not smack of too much salt and not enough light? Does it not end up being too concerned about minimising differences so as to help people be comfortable, rather than maximising differences to help some people be intrigued and attracted, while allowing many other people to mock and ridicule? There is something to endure in the life that bears witness to Christ in the public world - always, always, always. In P-WC endurance is just so commonplace as people experience oppression and persecution for their faith. The language of relevance rarely emerges. Have we been duped? C-mon, isn't mission in the P-CW hamstrung largely because we have forgotten to live different lives with distinction ... and then endure the consequences for the sake of Christ?

"reflect on what I am saying" (2.7)


nice chatting


Friday, October 09, 2009

the undefended leader (b)

Volume Two is subtitled "training in the exercise of power" - and that is exactly what the book covers. Volume One was about locating the source of freedom as a leader and Volume Two moves on to articulate what it means to be a leader - and it is about power.

Simon Walker opens with describing the forces at work in the power transactions which come with leadership. Firstly we return to the back stage:front stage forces from Volume One as an effective leader will be in command of both stages. Secondly there is a discussion of strong and weak forces in leadership. For example, the British Raj exerted 'strong' force, while Mahatma Gandhi used 'weak' force to exert influence. So strong force imposes shape, direction, or constraint - exuding strong personalities, positional power and formal authority. Weak force resources people through affiliation, respect or trust - moving to create consensus, foster trust, offer an invitation, or make a sacrifice. There is room for both, a need for both. Thirdly there is a choice between 'expanding' and 'consolidating' forces. Expansion is when 'we extend our territory and possesions', while consolidation is when 'we stabilise and build up what we already have but could lose'.

Walker loves his sketched images(!) and on p29 he presents the image of a bicycle where these three pairs of forces are illustrated. I can't begin to describe it! But he then places these three pairs of forces into various combinations to create "eight different patterns of power, each with its own character." (31) He names these "patterns of power" as Commanding, Foundational, Pacesetting, Visionary, Consensual, Self-emptying, Affiliative, and Serving - each one with full and helpful descriptors. "These eight different strategies represent the full repetoire of skills that are involved in effective leadership". (33)

Then each individual 'pattern' receives a whole chapter of explanation, together with an example of such a leader. Rather regrettably, there was an over-reliance on American presidents and an under-representation of women (none!) in the examples which he used. But he must hear that critique all the time so I won't dwell on it because the substance of what he says is just so helpful. The "ecology of power" is examined with each pattern as the interplay of the three sets of forces is explained. Each chapter concludes with ideas on how to implement each strategy, some examples of that strategy, and when to use it. A feature of Walker's writing is his capacity to illustrate and apply what he says. The total combo is as insightful as it is practical.

For the record, Abraham Lincoln reflects the Foundational, Franklin D. Roosevelt the Commanding, Ronald Reagan the Affiliative, Jimmy Carter the Serving, Winston Churchill the Pacesetting, Martin Luther King the Visionary, Nelson Mandela the Consensual, and Jesus of Nazareth the Self-emptying. Naturally what matters is being able "to use the right kind of power at the right time on the right occasion." (53)

The Consensual discussion becomes interesting because in being collective in its approach, it is "highly non-Western" (108). The essence of this strategy is "to build up the strength of the relationships between people" (108) and then Walker speaks of a boss who urged him to 'look at the spaces between people'. "The health and strength of any organisation lays not in the capacity of any one of its people or its departments, or its vision or its growth, but in the strength of the bonds that exist between people." (108) So reassuring to read him say it like this!

Then the Self-emptying is intriguing because Jesus is the model offered. At one point, back in the Raj:Gandhi example, he asks "how can vulnerability work to change the course of events?" (122). This is 'weak' force - but it can be so influential. "Self-sacrifice is the conscious choice not to use force or to exercise power but instead to allow something to be done to you." (122). That is a long way from standing up for your rights with a show of 'strong' force! He advocates the "strategic use of weakness" at the right time - but in so doing a leader must be willing to suffer and must be able to bear the suffering without being overwhelmed...

A couple of useful final chapters. Ch 14 - Finding the Holy Grail of Leadership - and the need for a leader to "understand the kind of power she is using and whether it is the appropriate kind to use in that situation." (133) The leader's "signature" becomes the array of strategies they are able to use effectively - with the understanding that we aim to develop in all eight strategies to enable a "mobility" in leadership. Great tips on how to do this on p141-2. "assemble a council of wise friends" ... "every leader needs to have an area of her life in which she is being led" ... "practise being still" ... "lay down your power at major junctions of your life" ... Those attached to success and results will find the use of 'weak' force diffcult. Those frightened of failure will struggle with using 'strong' forces.

Then in ch 16 - The Hospitality of the Undefended Leader - Walker is in search of a "new way of thinking of what a leader really needs to be" (152) and he comes with the idea of a leader being "a host" - because it is about the kind of space which we create around us. Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant. The most refreshing description of leadership I've heard in years. A host! So, at the core each of the eight strategies do something with the 'space around us' and between us and other people. "Used in concert, they offer a repertoire of social and emotional skills that allow a host to create and sustain a healthy, enriching, dynamic and (most importantly) humane space in which people can grow and give of their best." (152)

Can I close with a three paragraph quotation from p154? Well, I am going to anyway!

"Undefended leadership is about a kind of generous hospitality: a giving of ourselves to the world that transforms it, an opening-up of space in our lives in which the 'other' is welcomed and, indeed, utterly changed. As such, it is a task that depends on the 'space' available within the leader that others can be invited into. The quest to become undefended leaders is a quest to cultivate this interior space within ourselves, as well as the fluency to become welcoming hosts who can enrich our guests.
We've come to accept an idea of leadership in which the character of the leader is virtually irrelevant to his task as leader. The concept of undefended leadership contradicts this and insists that the right character is the primary attribute required. We've come to accept an idea of leadership in which the leader is strong and powerful and 'does things' for her followers. The concept of undefended leadership, however, says that first of all the leader must be led. Leadership is not a primary activity but a secondary one. A leader is not a leader first but a follower. First and foremost, she must be focused on the source of the love and grace that gives her security and sets her free.
Undefended leadership subverts expectations of power and self-sufficiency in favour of a life of vulnerability and dependence. It declares that the first steps taken by the undefended leader may not be on the metalled road to the trainnig school but on the rough path of personal discipleship. It is on that journey that the process of formation is begun. Undefended leadership begins not with the amassing of skills and the acquisition of power but with the humility of learning to trust and to receive. It insists that the leader must begin by receiving. Only then can he go on, enabled to give to others. It is only out of this kind of life that the freedom and power to act greatly can come." (154)

Admittedly, I am in the midst of a major transition in my working life as I move out of senior leadership as a Principal. This trilogy is giving me such sight and insight. We all have our strengths and weaknesses as leaders. Simon Walker, with almost surgical precision, has touched my weaknesses (which I am wired to remember too easily) as a leader and provided some healing - but also touched my strengths (which I am wired to forget too readily) as a leader and provided some reassurance. The books have been a God-send...

nice chatting


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

the undefended leader (a)

In recent months I have been discovering a treasure...

Back in 1997, in the months leading up to taking on the principalship at Carey, God reassured me in His call through a (secular!) book called The Leadership Challenge (Kouzes and Posner). Its impact on me was enormous. Now in the months after finishing as Principal at Carey a similar sort of reassurance has been flowing from God. I've been looking for something to help me process those years in senior leadership and a colleague in Langham pointed me towards this treasure.

It is the "undefended leader" trilogy by Simon Walker. Three brief, clear, fresh books on the nature of leadership. Leading out of Who You Are (I), Leading with Nothing to Lose (II), and Leading with Everything to Give (III). I have read the first two on recent plane trips and am saving #3 for the next trip. Can't wait...

Walker had me by the end of paragraph One in chapter One of volume One. "Leadership is about who you are, not what you know or what skills you have. Why is this? There are two reasons: leadership is about trust and it is about power (5)". Kouzes and Posner had pointed me in this direction. In all the years at Carey I tried to give priority to building-trust and sharing-power wherever and whenever I could. I consider it to be the essence of leadership. The best times as a leader were when I could see people flourishing within this framework. The worst times were when I could sense people misreading my intentions in these two areas. So ... to read this so early and so baldly in this trilogy both reassured me and pulled me in for the full trilogy. I have not been disappointed.

Walker recognises that every single one of us, not just some of us, have emotional needs. The message of Volume One is that "unless those needs are met in the context of a relationship with an Other who accepts us unconditionally, we will seek to meet them from human relationships around us. When a leader does this, she starts to exploit her followers as a surrogate source of affection, power, control, belonging or whatever it may be she needs. Her followers cease to be people she is freely serving and instead, to some extent, become commodities she needs and uses. The transaction between leader and followers becomes corrupted and, rather than freedom, it results in a kind of collusion. (II, 144)". When this "Other" is in place it brings a sense of identity, security, belonging, and affection which leads to the quality of 'undefendedness', enabling a leader to be truly free. The bulk of Volume One is given to describing the different 'egos' formed in childhood and how they impact the way a leader operates. He names them as the Shaping, the Defining, the Adapting, and the Defending 'Leadership Egos'.

The books have helpful images and tables - none more useful than his distinction between 'front stage' and 'back stage' forces at work in leadership. The front stage is what is explicit, visible, on the surface while the back stage is what is implicit, hidden or buried from sight. Walker's insights into the way these two stages inter-relate is so useful - food for compelling discussion in any mentoring relationship.

A highlight of Volume One is ch 13 - "Leading as a Child": (a) maintaining a light and playful touch; (b) retaining the capcity to wonder; (c) strengthening the bonds of trust; (d) learning to take responsibility. So also is ch 15 - "Setting Undefended Goals": (a) enabling people to embrace struggle; (b) enabling people to both develop and 'lay down' their skills; (c) enabling people to identify and embrace their vocations; (d) enabling people to 'know the moment'.

Some quotes I want to retain (blogs are great filing systems!):
"a leader is one who takes responsibility for people other than himself" (I, 17)

"Freedom comes when we start to allow people to see not only the glossy image - front stage - but the mess as well - back stage" (I, 33)

"If you want to know what the leader is like, you should look at the community around them" (I, 44-45)

"Only when a leader is willing to follow someone else's script can collaboration truly be said to be taking place" (I, 46)

"Freedom comes when we are concerned only about the opinion of the one in the audience who truly matters" (I, 103)

"The choices you make to live an undefended life, to lead as an undefended leader, are not made for the sake of balance or wellbeing; they are made for a greater good. And that greater good is to set people free" (I, 124)

"Nature builds in struggle as an essential part of the formation and development of healthy life (and leaders)" (I, 140)

"The only proper goal of leadership is this: to enable people to take responsibility" (I,153)

"Leadership is a task that occurs at every level of life and in every kind of sphere ... Leadership is a way of offering life to the world, in order to draw life out of the world. As such, it is a spiritual activity" (I, 154)

"I myself believe that all leaders should lay down their roles every five years or so. A period in which we are shorn of our power is good for us and reveals whether we are truly free" (I, 156)

"I have found that many of the skills I have possessed that I have also let go have been given back to me, but with a power they did not have before" (I, 157)

"I often look out for people with exceptional listening skills - the ability to sit quietly without interrupting or interpreting, to notice little things and to reserve judgement. These, rather than the confidence of power, are the things I would look for in a potential leader" (I, 158)

to be continued...

nice chatting


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

fifty not out

As a way of celebrating my fiftieth birthday I invited a bunch of friends to go with me on a pilgrimage to Marsden Cross in the Bay of Islands - the site of the first preaching of the gospel in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Along the way we stopped at various places where I told a little of my story decade-by-decade, as well as sharing a hymn and introducing friends from each decade.

It went a bit like this...

#1 - the decade of heritage and hunger
I now recognise that one of the ways in which God has poured his amazing grace on me was by placing me in a family with a long and strong Christian heritage. While I have had no dramatic conversion, I did kneel beside my hepatitus-ridden sister's bed in Chandigarh on 5 March 1967 and accept Jesus into my heart. I remember having a hunger for God from those early years. Nowhere was this more evident than in those evening services at Edgehill in Mussoorie where I used to love to select Keswick Hymnbook #213 at every opportunity.

Stay'd upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest;
Finding as he promised, perfect peace and rest.

[from "Like a River Glorious"]

#2 - the decade of choosing and calling
Delhi Bible Fellowship and Mt Albert Baptist Church became the contexts in which I grew as a Christian. Slowly I gained an appreciation that God had chosen me and therefore considered me to be choice. Looking back I recognise that I suppressed a call into 'the ministry' - opting for the family's default option of medicine. However, rather curiously. I failed to be accepted into Medical School. Within days of that failure I became convinced of God's call to be a pastor as I sat one Sunday night by the purple pillars in Mt Albert Baptist. A few months later - as the Russians were invading Afghanistan - I found myself listening to John Stott open up the early chapters of Romans and just knew that biblical exposition was the calling on my life.

O teach me, Lord, that I may teach the precious things Thou dost impart;
And wing my words that they may reach the hidden depths of many a heart.

[from "Lord, Speak to Me, That I May Speak"]

#3 - the decade of foundations and fragility
I cannot imagine my life without the foundations provided by my theological education at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, my time as a pastor at Georgetown Baptist Church (Invercargill), and my marriage to Barby and the impact which she and our five children (Stephen, Alyssa, Martin, Bethany, and Joseph) have had on me. The love I had for them - but even more, the love they had for me! And yet during these very years I knew unimaginably dark times as I confronted my own emotional fragility, really for the first time. I knew depression and I certainly gained an empathy for those for whom suicide seems the best option. But I also began to learn that a secret of the Christian life was not the strength of my grip on God's hand, but the strength of His grip on mine.

Hold Thou my hand, the way is dark before me, without the sunlight of Thy face divine;
But when by faith I catch its radiant glory, what heights of joy, what rapturous songs are mine.

[from "Hold Thou My Hand"]

#4 - the decade of aspiration and acceptance
After thinking that I was called-for-life to be a pastor, that call lifted like a cloud as I approached my thirtieth birthday. Surprisingly, I started the decade not so much as a pastor, but as a lecturer (at Bible College of New Zealand). Aspiration as a lecturer was fanned into flame. I wanted to be the best I could be. These were the years where I discovered a parental-like love for students and a delight in watching their punga-like growth. I already miss them! Then even more surprisingly, I closed the decade not so much as a lecturer, but as a leader (as Principal at Carey Baptist College). On the basis of what?! Five years at little Georgetown was all that my CV contained. I remained a reluctant leader as it was an isolating thankless life, particularly in those middle years, for which I was unsuited. But still I gave myself fully to it and tried to be the best I could be as I accepted it as the call of God on my life.

O choose me in my golden time, in my dear joys have part;
For Thee the glory of my prime, the fullness of my heart!

[from "Lord, in the Fullness of My Might"]

#5 - the decade of hurt and hope
With that tsunami on that Boxing Day something broke inside me. A veil was lifted. I saw the world with new eyes. I began to feel its pain with fresh intensity. I wept uncontrollably, repeatedly. My children were getting to me. Alyssa worked in Kolkata's slums and came home and immediately put "compassion: to suffer with" on her wall. Stephen commenced research into Africa's darkest realities and eventually went off to Uganda to advocate for refugee children, among the most vulnerable people in our world. The Bible was getting to me. "From one man God created all the peoples of the world", implying they are all equal and all equally precious. The implication of the global village was getting to me. If we live in a global village then the global church is a village church where the poorest of the poor are my near neighbours. At the same time I was rediscovering the most overlooked truth in the Western church: the Christian hope. A day is coming when all wrongs will be righted and all rights will be vindicated - and that for all time. While we are scared of that day, the most vulnerable and the most oppressed in this world long for that day - and even sing about it, as did the Psalmist. I began begging God for a role even closer to this action. He has been gracious.

All men shall dwell in His marvelous light, races long severed His love shall unite.
Justice and truth from His sceptre shall spring, wrong shall be ended when Jesus is King.

[from "Sing We the King"]

nice chatting


Thursday, September 17, 2009

kampala and delhi

I am on my way home after a 'listening' visit with Langham, as distinct from the usual 'training' trip, to East Africa and North India. The idea is to absorb the conversations of key people and then to participate in decisions which can progress the work the next stage.

In East Africa, the Langham Preaching coordinators from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania gather amidst the occasional burst of gunfire as the second day of riots heat up. We evacuate our little hotel situated at the heart of the troubled area and gather at a (brother's) niece's place, overlooking the 15th green of the Kampala Golf Course. Not too shabby - and safe. Listening to Mercy (Kenya), Frank (Tanzania), Julius and Barbara (Uganda) for a day is a privilege.

But throughout my time in Kampala my heart keeps moving DOWN a generation... My son Stephen is working there. Within weeks of completing his BA/LLB(Hons) he is off on a plane to work as a volunteer in a Refugee Law Project for a year. His work revolves around gathering the stories of refugee-children in a way that builds his ability to advocate for them. My heart is full of admiration for what he is doing. After a full Mon-Fri in the office with refugees and people, he heads off on Saturdays to walk through the slum-y areas of Kampala to chat though a questionnaire he has devised for the children. I saw the pages and pages of handwritten notes from conversations with child after child, each one valued and respected. While his focus remains on the children, his Dad can't help notice the inadequate funding, the inadequate housing, and the inadequate social networks with which he lives - yes, it is hard to say good-bye.

In North India, fifteen leaders gather, amidst the incessant sound of car-horns, for two days of consultation about how to have Langham Preaching commence in the region. There are pastors and theological educators, student workers and doctors. We gather in a massive suburb called Noida (across the Jumuna River) which didn't exist when I lived in Delhi. Crossing the Jumuna, I am reminded again why the Commonwealth Games in 2010 will not include the triathalon. There is no large body of water in Delhi safe enough!

But throughout my time in Delhi my heart keeps moving UP a generation... My parents and my parents-in-law gave a combined total of 65 years to the church in North India. My in-laws finished up as Senior Pastor of Delhi Bible Fellowship (DBF). [NB - it was within that church community that I took early and decisive steps in my walk with God]. Thirty years later, on that first night, I find myself sitting across from Devendra and Robin, two of the pastors of DBF today. I hear them talk of Internship programmes and a School of Biblical Teaching which has an influence extending well beyond DBF. Dream come true stuff for the in-laws! I wish they could have been sitting where I sat.

My parents founded one of the earliest and most effective indigenous mission organisations that there is today anywhere: the Emmanuel Hospital Association (EHA). Forty years later I find myself sharing a room with Raju (on the far right above). Raju was an Indian neurologist in London doing very well for himself, thank-you very much. Then he heard God's call to an EHA hospital that was about to close. It had become so dysfunctional. He made his offer and laid down his conditions... Just six years later the impact of that hospital as the beach-head for work in community health, education, micro-enterprise, evangelism in a manner which is transforming an entire district is breathtaking. Dream come true stuff for my parents. I wish they could have been sitting where I sat.

I was left to enjoy it all vicariously...

nice chatting


Sunday, September 06, 2009

a bucket list (final)

[NB - I have added now the suggestions of readers to create my final ten selections]

I guess you know the movie The Bucket List. A couple of old guys make a list of things they'd love to do before they kick-the-bucket and off they go and do them.

I guess you've seen the big fat books at airport bookshops along the lines of One Hundred ... Before You Die. Movies to watch. Places to visit. Golf courses to play. That sort of thing.

I've been thinking about a bucket list: ten books of less-than-one-hundred-pages to read (and reread) before you die. But I am not quite there and need your help to finish the list...

Here are my 'first five' - I need you to suggest another five!

ONE John Stott, Your Mind Matters (IVP, 2007)

TWO Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: reflections on Christian leadership (Crossroad, 1989)

THREE Amy Carmichael, If (CLC Ministries, 1992)

FOUR John Baillie, The Diary of Private Prayer (Prentice Hall, 1996)

FIVE Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (SCM, 1954)

SIX A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Authentic Lifestyle, 2004)

SEVEN Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell (Eerdmans, 1991)

EIGHT Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (IVP, 1968)

NINE C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (Harper, 1946)

TEN Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Epworth, 1959)

(We'll remember the love for cricket and go for eleven...)

ELEVEN Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Eerdmans, 1999)

nice chatting


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

beattitudes unplugged

While on the subject of major influences in my life...

Dave and Angie Andrews (based now in Brisbane) came to live with us in New Delhi when I was barely a teenager. They view my parents as kinda like surrogate parents so I guess that makes them kinda like surrogate siblings - and they've been a big influence over the years.

They've launched a new project calling the church back to the Be-Attitudes in the Sermon on the Mount.

Here is a bit of a promo...

[NB: enter "Plan be: Blessed" into the youtube search engine and you can find the video on each beattitude]

Dave has sent the whole package across. Seriously - if you have any influence over decisions about resources being used in small groups in your orbit, I urge you to take a look at this option. There are full study-guides for each beattitude, supported by short readings from a book written by Dave as well as a DVD which contains street-chat with random people on the meaning of each beattitude. It all looks inexpensive (but professional) and accessible and interactive and practical ... not to mention prophetic!

[I am a bit out of the 'loop' now for resources like this, so apologies if everyone already knows about this one - and I am just a bit slow!]

nice chatting


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

scholar as pastor

It is the first of September. Spring has sprung. The daffs are up. The lambs are out. And the magazine for the alumni of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) arrived in the mail...

It is a particularly good issue. As I read it through I find myself saying to my daughter Bethany, "You know my three years at TEDS were the most important years of my life." It's true. It shaped me.

As I thumb through the pages I note a few familiar people - like my friend in those dorms, David Kyle Foster who went on to write the classic text on sexual brokenness and who came to TEDS from a bit of a career in Hollywood. Boy, was I a wide-eyed 21 year old when he told me that!

Then I see mention of the John Piper and DA Carson evening to a packed church of 1500+ people back in April - on the subject of "the pastor as scholar and the scholar as pastor" and a link on the web ...

... and I decided to treat myself for the latter part of the afternoon. I listened/watched Don Carson for 64min on the subject of "the scholar as pastor". Vintage D.A.C. The stimulation of mind and stirring of heart in that seamless way which so impacted me almost thirty years ago. Some of the same old stories recycled to good effect. I revelled in all the memories. I thanked the Lord for the privilege. Alongside John Stott, he is quite simply the biggest influence on my life. Easily misunderstood, he has always been for me the scholar-pastor about which he speaks in this talk.

I suspect the Q & A afterwards is also good - but I haven't got that far yet.

Go on - why not treat yourself as well?!

nice chatting


Saturday, August 29, 2009

not walking past the best ones

One of the major irritants for me in the training of preachers is the dependence people can develop on books and websites for their illustrations.

"Omnibus volumes (and websites) of sermon anecdotes are the last refuge of a bankrupt intelligence." They sound so second-hand, so predigested, so stale...

We tend to walk past our best illustrations. So it is about pausing to listen and to watch. Then it is about using our imagination to think creatively. This will yield - consistently - the best illustrations. There is an immediacy about them. There is an intimacy with them. There is an everydayness. Everyone identifies with the everyday. That is why it is called 'everyday'.

Being able to see the spiritually significant in the utterly ordinary is the key. The best illustrators are like fishermen who trawl and photographers who click ... and then think for a bit.

Let me illustrate(!) what I mean. During the Langham Preaching seminars in which I am involved I now get people out of their seats and we go for a walk together. "Look at this. Look at that. What truth might they illustrate?"

When in Pakistan a few weeks ago we did this. I had them look at a vast slab of immoveable concrete out of which, in one section, a bit of a plant was growing which carried a tinge of greenery.

What might this illustrate?

They looked and looked. Not a lot of firing-up of the imagination in that rote-learning style of education! I wondered whether this approach would work?! Silence. Gulp - did I misread things here?

A voice speaks. Then the translator speaks.

"It is a bit like how it is for us as God's people in this (Muslim) majority culture in Pakistan."

What do you mean? Please tell me more.

"It is just so hard here - but maybe God can still bring some growth."

I will never, ever forget that moment. I don't think they will either. Immediacy. Intimacy. Everydayness. And we didn't walk right past it...

This morning I walked back from the letterbox and caught the sight of this rose. Just for a bit of fun, what illustrations might this image generate? I invite readers to offer their suggestions and see how many we can gather...

OK? Click on it to get the closer view...

What d'ya reckon?!

nice chatting


Thursday, August 27, 2009

peter adam's written for us

The 'theology of the word' is not where it needs to be today. Intimidated as we are by image and event, music and symbol, entertainment and short attention spans, and goodness only knows what else - we tend to lose our convictions about the Word of God and our appetite for it drains away as a result.

Ellul was right. There has been a 'humiliation of the word'.

The obvious medication that comes to mind is for communities of the people of God to live and linger in Psalm 1, Psalm 19, and Psalm 119 and have these songs become their songs in theory and in practise.

We do need to recover the potential of the ministry of the Word to be an echo of what happened in Genesis 1, believing that something can be formed out of nothing in peoples' lives. We do need to recover the potential for Ezekiel 37 to be retold in peoples' lives whereby something living emerges from something dead in response to the Word of God. At different times in my life this has been my experience. Haggai 1. 2 Timothy 4. Luke 24. It goes on and on. The ancient Word of God creating something out of nothing, turning death into life, in me. I covet this experience for others.

Yes - that's right. Our theology of word is nowhere near where it needs to be.

This is where Peter Adam's book can be so helpful. He calls it a "biblical theology of the Bible" (12). The design of the book expounds a single sentence, phrase-by-phrase, chapter-by-chapter: "receiving God's words, written for his people, by his Spirit, about his Son". [NB - while the whole book expounds this sentence, in one chapter (16) he expounds it from just the one book of the Bible: Hebrews].

So the book is about appreciating the Bible through these successive perspectives of ecclesiology, pneumatology, and christology. This macro-structure to the book is its best feature as it binds an understanding of the Bible to the very things from which it so readily becomes unhinged: the church, the Spirit, and Jesus.

I liked other things...

1. Basically Adam just travels from one biblical passage to another, opening it up with an eye on what it contributes to our understanding of the Bible. Afterall the book is about "what the Bible teaches about itself" (14). Then on pp259-260 there is an Index of Major Bible Passages covered in the book. An incredibly useful list that could form the basis of a course or a series of studies/messages. His explanation of the following passages were the ones which impacted me the most: Ezra 7/Nehemiah 8 (pp99-106); 2 Timothy 3 & 4 (pp133-140); 1 Corinthians 1 & 2 (pp 164-174)

2. His "Ten keys to the useful application of the Bible' (pp140-144 - and the later illustration of these keys from Hebrews on pp207-209) will be required reading in future courses which I teach on preaching.

3. He doesn't let himself get drawn into an apologia for the Bible: "In this book I have not attempted to defend what the Bible says about itself: all I have attempted to do is to describe it (247)". I found this both refreshing and reassuring.

Here is his final paragraph:
"...a sound theology of the Bible depends on our theology of God's capacity for verbal revelation, and our capacity to receive it. It also depends on a theology of the one people of God ... It depends on the authentication of Christ, who in his teaching authenticates the OT, his own teaching, and the teaching of his apostles. It depends on a theology of the Spirit which connects the Spirit with the self-revelation of God, with truth, with words, and with verbal revelation. It also points to the Christ of the Scriptures: the word of the Lord speaks of the Lord of the word. It is this robust theology which supports Scripture's own theology and invitation: to receive God's words written for us, written for his people, by his Spirit, about his Son(247)".

While Peter Adam may not be a rivetting read with multiple quotable quotes, over the years I have found his books squeezing in there to form a critical part of my foundation as I give myself to a ministry of the Word.

nice chatting


Monday, August 24, 2009

william hague's william wilberforce

On this the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wilberforce, I offer my tribute by engaging with the biography written by former leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague - which I finished on Saturday.

I have wondered about starting a WWW club for William Wilberforce Wannabees like myself but maybe I'll settle for listing some of his qualities which I wannabee like:

1. www.generosity

Heir to a massive fortune Wilberforce was generous to a fault. When in discussion with Hannah More about the educational needs of poor children, he responded "If you will be at the trouble, I will be at the expense" (213). And as he moved into retirement, he brought with him "the same group of shuffling servants he could not bear to sack" (491). His was a life lived with "unfailing generosity amidst unavailing chaos" (428).

2. www.carefulness

And yet amidst the chaos he gave attention to some details - like the way he would "make long lists of how he could help his friends" (213) and then spend Sunday afternoon studyng the list and deciding how to act upon it. Or, the occasion when he wrote out an alphabetical list of his faults (208) and his intention to have God help him with them.

3. www.providence

Again and again and again, instead of saying 'God', Wilberforce simply writes "Providence" with a capital P (92, 205...) . For him this was the essence of God's activity in his life, for "Providence governs the world" (352). It is that lovely blend of sovereignty and grace captured so well in the testimony of Nehemiah "the gracious hand of my God was upon me (Neh 2.8, 18). I like it. But I notice the P-word cannot even make it into the Index of McGrath's classic text on Theology. It embarasses us. In the colloquial, Christians far prefer to use the word "luck" - OR they consider that the bad things happening in the world will always trump any sense of providence and thereby eclipse it. No! On so many fronts Wilberforce lived a miserable life (his own health, his own failures, the death of children, other children squandering all his money so that he died virutally penniless...) - and yet near the end it could be said "For 45 years he had believed in Providence; he was not going to stop now" (495).

4. www.conversion

His conversion, the "Great Change", was so gradual and it took place in a thoughtful way. The head was engaged - something was understood first - and then heart and hand were transformed forever. This profound conversion, together with the other Claphamites, led on to "one of the greatest varieties and volumes of charitable activity ever launched by any group of people in any age" (220). Yes, Ephesians 2:8,9 ... and 10 in a way that changed a century. FROM the London Missionary Society (LMS), the Church Missionary Society (CMS), the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Sunday School Union, TO the 'Society for Superseding the Necessity for Climbing-Boys in Cleansing Chimneys', the 'Friendly Female Society for the Relief of Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows and Single Women of Good Character, Who Have Seen Better Days', and the Society for the Suppression of Vice.


There can be no substitute for the words of John Newton to Wilberforce in the movie: "Do it, Wilber. Do it." I've been saying them to my kids ever since. But there is something about John Wesley's words (among his final ones before he died) to Wilberforce as well: "Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you who can be against you. Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh, be not weary in well doing" (195).

In addition to these there is room for a chapter on Slavery (ch 6: "The Trade in Flesh and Blood") which could be required reading in either a high school or university course. Similarly p178f on the secret of his effectiveness as a speaker could find its way into a course on preaching/speaking quite readily. There is the intrigue about Wilberforce proposing to Barbara (20 years younger than him - "a woman capable of bearing prosperity without intoxication" 280), 8 days after meeting her - and married 6 weeks later! GULP?!

I should have seen this next one coming... I think I am going to further celebrate his birthday by watching Amazing Grace tonight - yet again!

nice chatting


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

shane claiborne's the irresistible revolution

"Have you read Claiborne's book yet?"
Finally, I am able to respond "Yes".

There is a lot to like about this book.

1. There is that title. Ever since I read David Wenham's The Parables of Jesus: pictures of revolution twenty years ago I have been partial to the use of the word 'revolution' as a contemporary equivalent (roughly) to Jesus' idea of the 'kingdom of God'. A bit militaristic but... Wenham writes of the "excitement of Jesus' message. He was announcing a dramatic forceful change in society to people who really longed for such a change" (Wenham, 23). Claiborne captures something of that excitement so well in his book.

2. He strikes so many prophetic blind-spot-exposing notes in what he writes.

His plea for a fresh generosity with a commitment to hospitality because "redistribution springs naturally out of rebirth (163)." We still need the wealth-creators. It is the distribution of that wealth that needs addressing.

His courageous and perceptive exposure of the priority given to patriotism in the USA, as seen in things like the American flag at the front of churches. That has always seemed odd to me. That "messy collision of Christianity and patriotism that has rippled across our land (197)." He writes of the need to see the church develop a sense of being one family "without borders". He resists speaking of the church as plural - only as singular (which is, of course, one of the striking things about 1 Peter 2). Terrific stuff.

Chapter 12 is entitled "growing smaller and smaller until we take over the world". His critique of BIG things carries weight for me. He is onto something that needs to be heard. This is why for ten years I have never asked a pastor how many people there are in his/her church. Not that numbers do not have their place, but such talk immediately prejudices the subsequent discussion in unhelpful ways.

I think his passing critique of Wheaton College - where many of my own in-laws went to school - is not unfair and he seems to want to be critical of Willow Creek, but can't quite pull-the-trigger (because he has too many valued relationships in the organisation, I suspect). But he still manages to explode a few bombs around seeker-sensitivity (104-106)!

3. Then there are some profound contributions to my understanding of different issues. For example:

Holding the tension of dignity and depravity in our self-understanding. "Some of us have been told our whole lives that we are wretched, but the gospel reminds us that we are beautiful. Others of us have been told our whole lives that we are beautiful, but the gospel reminds us that we are also wretched (245)."

There are 'activists' among the social justice circle; there are 'believers' in the church circle - but what is needed are "lovers" of people.

The inner city may have its crime, but let's not forget that "the suburbs are home to more subtle demonic forces - numbness, complacency, comfort - and it is these that can eat away at our souls (227)." Brilliantly said.

His call for the use of the imagination, his desire to see vocation redefined, his maintenance of the attack on dualism in the church, his stopping short of rubbishing the church ("we mustn't detach from the church in a self-righteous cynicism" (354)). It is all good stuff. Yes, I really liked the book. If I am honest, I liked it more than I expected.

There is some stuff that leaves me a little cautious as well

1. Claiborne admits that this is a 'book of stories' and that he is writing autobiographically. That's fine - but when he is so good at it, he needs to take care. There is an awful lot of Shane in this book! Not sure that heroes of his like Bonhoeffer - and maybe even Mother Teresa - would write like this. While I do not doubt for one minute that he is a deeply committed follower of Jesus, impressionable readers with less maturity are in great danger of becoming disciples of Shane, rather than Jesus primarily, after reading this book. It doesn't surprise me that he tells a story about being caught up at one point signing autographs for younger people. He writes in a way that attracts that kind of celebrity status from the young.

I've watched this sort of communication impact young people here in NZ for thirty years. It is a frequent feature at Easter Camps and Parachute Music Festivals, for example. Inspiring personal story-driven messages that seem to display more confidence in the speaker's own story than in the story of God and Jesus as revealed in the Bible. The fruit of this can be seen in the struggle we have had creating mature disciples among the young who can prevail beyond the time when the inspiration runs out. For three decades I have grieved the lack of confidence in the Bible among so many of our youth ministries... In Claiborne's next book I'd love to see him base what he says more in the Bible, with his own story being illustrative of what he is revealing from the Bible, rather than the other way around.

2. I have some suggestions of where his engagement with the Bible could be deepened! This book was crying out for some Ecclesiastes. On page 225 I was sure he was going to jump across to Ecclesiastes 11. It would have been so compelling in his gifted word-making. At numerous times I was sure he was going to touch down in Ecclesiastes 4. I missed him unpacking the passages in the Epistles that so deepen our understanding of what it means to be church. And then when he writes about complacency in the suburbs - please, please, please take us to the post-exilic prophets (Malachi, for example) for whom this was their message. But no - each time I was left really disappointed.

3. I love his Marks of a New Monasticism. I do love what is there - but I am a little concerned about what is not there. Our understanding of the gospel needs to be truly wholistic and not one with holes in it. Never assume things, or else they will tend to be forgotten by those who follow. There is such a danger today to underplay the importance of sharing Jesus with people using words. For example, when Jesus mourned over Jerusalem at the end of Matthew 23, it was not because the city of Jerusalem was beginning to slip into nearby Gehenna, an environmentally-unfriendly wasteland. Nor was it because the people of Jerusalem were oppressed and impoverished, even though they were. Jesus was mourning because they had rejected him and they were lost until they found him, enabling him to be to them "as a hen gathering her chicks under her wings" (Matt 23:37). That is why Jesus mourned. Creation care and/or caring for the poor is not the full gospel. Lost people were remaining lost...let's never lose sight of the need to be introducing people to Jesus.

4. We need to respect the political-religious-cultural context of the American church in which Claiborne is writing (not too many of those websites at the end escape the USA!) and discern the ways in which it is different from what churches in other countries confront. Claiborne is rightly pushing back at a church with power and wealth far beyond what we find in any other country in the world. That needs to impact the way we read his book sitting elsewhere in the world. And if the church is one (singular) church, I reckon there's plenty to be learned from our brothers and sisters in the Majority World of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

That'll do. I enjoyed the book. It provoked lots of reflection. I am praying that God will keep and protect Shane Claiborne, continuing to deepen his insights into the gospel for the benefit of us all.

nice chatting


sex laws

When I was in the USA for a period last year I heard stories like the ones recorded in this recent issue of The Economist.
Read the first few paragraphs of this link to an article entitled "Unjust and Ineffective". and feel a shudder go down your spine as you weep for Wendy.

nice chatting (I think)


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

on indigenous peoples

One of the differences between Australia and New Zealand that has fascinated me over the years is the vastly different ways in which they have addressed the issues of the rights of indigenous peoples. Australians, particularly within the evangelical church, just seem to ignore the issue.

Not any more.

Dr Peter Adam (Principal, Ridley College in Melbourne; a favourite author of mine on the subject of preaching and pretty conservative theologically) has just given a most remarkable lecture with the title "Australia - whose land?"

The Sydney Morning Herald has picked up on the lecture and there is a similar story in The Age from Melbourne.

WOW - this one is going to cause a stir. They'll be talking about it for years.

Good on him!

nice chatting